I am one of the few people who actually thought Duolingo gave a decent service. It has come to get a bad reputation over the years, but this is largely undeserved. Most of the criticism I have seen of it revolve around some mythical notion of their being a ‘complete’ language learning course. There is no such thing, and I can fault duolingo for its incompleteness as much as I can fault my wine opener for not being able to do my calculus homework. I have to constantly tell people this, and it always leads into weird conversations were they nominate their language learning app of choice and I have to point out that it too isn’t very complete. I mostly use these tools to learn modern Greek, and most people nominate Mango languages as an alternative, which is laughably bad.
Language learning tools are a supplement. None of them will ever teach you a language on their own.
But recently duolingo shut down its forums, which were incidentally its most powerful feature. There were rumors it was going to shut down for a while, and now it has happened. Those forums were there best feature, as it let people get into the weeds of a language and have conversations with people who know the language well about what is going on. It was probably the feature that made it stand apart from its competitors the most. I can get why they shut it down, as it was the cause of a lot of frustration for the moderators, most of them volunteers, who used to staff those forums. Leading up to the shut down, I could already see the patience of those moderators beginning to run thin. Often, I go the impression that they didn’t get why certain questions were being asked. Let’s look at an example:
I was given a question, I submitted an answer, and I was wrong. Fair enough. But what I end up not understanding is what is wrong, and why it is wrong. This has a lot to do with how all these apps (yes, your precious Mango languages is no exception) accept answers. It seems as if sometimes they expected as close to a literal translation as possible, and sometimes are ok with something a little more lofty. It is with conversations that about the language that you can get to the bottom of it. In the picture above I think my answer should still be accepted, but I am not all that sure. Before, I would have asked about it. Now, I submitted and maybe in a month or two they will get back to me. If I never hear anything from them, I guess I will just have to die curious.
But part of me wanted to walk through the above example. So here goes.
What we are interested in is the last word of the sentence in Greek, ‘Φαγωμενα’. More important than what the word means is its grammatical structure. The word is a past participle of the passive voice, which means it functions as an adjective to give the described word a sense of having being affected by something in the past.
So how does one translate that? Well its tricky. I’ll reduce the sentence to make it more clear, but my reasoning went as follows:
Τα (the) μπισκοτα (cookies) ειναι (are[which I changed to ‘were’ for the sake of english]) φαγωμενα (eaten).
For clarity, the past-ness in this sentence is communicated in that past participle φαγωμενα.
Duolingo opted for this translation
Τα (the) μπισκοτα (cookies) ειναι (have been) φαγωμενα (eaten).
Which makes no bloody sense to me. Particularly in light of the fact that later we get a sentance looking approximately like this:
Αυτη (she) ειναι (is) πιωμενη (drunk).
Wait, what? So the same grammatical form results in two very different translation? I get that things like this are contextual, but this makes no sense. Particularly in light of the fact that here the difference between the perfect and the simple past (in the english) is pretty damn negligible. Its mostly choosing between two options at this point.
But here is the issue -I could be wrong. I have been in the past about similar lines of reasoning. That’s why the forums were better, because I could be informed about these subtleties, or at least hash it out with someone.
Now, I get to die curious.
What all this is to say is that duolingo is ripe to be replaced by a better service, if only someone would come along and make one.